The moral sophistry of Roger Waters

Last week, the singer encouraged other performers to follow his lead in joining the BDS movement. But Waters and other far-left critics possess a reductionist moral view of the conflict, based primarily on knee-jerk reactions that favor the underdog.

roger waters_311 reuters (photo credit: Mario Anzuoni / Reuters)
roger waters_311 reuters
(photo credit: Mario Anzuoni / Reuters)
Last Friday, Roger Waters, the iconic former lead singer of the band Pink Floyd, wrote in The Guardian about his recent decision to join the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign, mainly in an attempt to encourage other artists to do likewise. With this move, Waters has jumped on the growing bandwagon of celebrities - from Elvis Costello to the Pixies - who are refusing to come and perform in Israel.
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While most artists who have canceled performances refuse to cite a reason, Waters was brave enough to actually express his stance on the matter. In his piece, Waters relays how he visited the separation barrier wall in 2006, and was treated by “young Israeli soldiers… with disdainful aggression.” To which he concluded, “If it could be like that for me, a foreigner, a visitor, imagine what it must be like for the Palestinians, for the underclass, for the passbook carriers.”
Herein lies the moral sophistry that undergirds not only Waters’ view of the Arab-Israeli conflict, but increasingly that of many far left-wing ideologues as well. For Water’s ilk, the crux of the issue is about standing up for the weak and oppressed - “the underclass.” In his world, culpability for the Palestinians’ situation lays squarely and solely with the government of Israel. The boycott is thus meant to push Israelis to force their government to make peace.
So is Roger Waters right? Are the strong necessarily wrong? Must men and women of conscience always stand up for the weak?
The moral failing of this view is that - sometimes explicitly, but more often implicitly - it excuses the weaker side of a conflict when it either pursues illegitimate goals or acts immorally. Its proponents frequently exonerate or minimize the atrocities perpetrated by the weaker side. On the rare occasions where the underdog is critiqued, it is merely as an aside in the course of a far severer rebuke of the stronger party. Most despicably, this view ruefully ignores that “the oppressed” might actually make decisions and pursue policies whose only result is to further their own misery.
Of course, for those who itch to “speak truth to power,” this is all very inconvenient. They get no satisfaction from speaking truth to the oppressed.
Unfortunately, in our particular conflict, this stance not only does the Palestinians a great disservice - it paradoxically prevents the sides from forging the peace so desperately needed. Being a true dove - and not just a self-righteous imitation - means you understand that real peace will require ignoble compromise. It is a recognition that both sides will inevitably have a bitter taste in their mouths as they sign on the dotted line of any final settlement; after all, relinquishing long-held national aspirations will on many levels feel like betrayal. Virtually no one on the far left, however, speaks this kind of truth. They never counsel the Palestinians that in order to end their own misery they will need to swallow this bitter pill eventually, and abandon some of their goals.
In this light, Roger Waters’ call for a boycott of Israel until it agrees, among other things, to the Palestinian right of return, is indubitably a blow for peace. What peace desperately requires is for he and others to tell the Palestinian people what some in their leadership have finally, quietly come to recognize: that the right of return is both a non-starter and a recipe for a bloody civil war in the future.
If Waters could acknowledge that Palestinians are not simply helpless bystanders in determining their own fate, he would “exhort” both Palestinians and Israelis to demand from their governments to make painful compromises for peace. In solely castigating Israelis to do more, Waters again overlooks an unpleasant fact: we have never witnessed a mass Palestinian protest in favor of peace like those that regularly fill Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square.
All this is not to pretend that Israeli actions are perfect or beyond rebuke. Far, far from it. This is, however, a call for Israel’s many critics on the left to cultivate a more enlightened and sophisticated moral view of the conflict. Criticism should not be based on a knee-jerk reaction against whoever possesses greater military or economic might, nor should moral culpability be determined by a rudimentary calculation of whose body count is bigger.
Ironically, these self-described “progressives” would do well to take a lesson from a most “traditional” text: “Commit no miscarriage of justice: do not favor the poor nor show deference to the rich; in righteousness shall you judge your kinsmen.” (Leviticus 19:15) In its wisdom, the Bible points out that morality and culpability cannot be linked to who one is, but rather on the goals one pursues and the actions one commits. So, will the far left heed these lessons? Or will they continue to stubbornly grasp onto Water’s words, “We don’t need no education”?
The writer is the former Deputy Director of the Global Research in International Affairs Center (GLORIA) in Herzliya.